Dairy 101 from Your State Ambassador

Do you have questions about dairy? You’re not alone.

Hi everyone! I’m Anna, the Washington State Dairy Ambassador. I travel throughout our beautiful state speaking to community groups, teaching nutrition in schools and answering questions about dairy. From questions like, “What do cows eat?” to “Is milk good for me?” – I get them all.

Growing up six minutes from SeaTac Airport, I was raised like most Washington children: without living on or near a farm. As a young child, I loved watching dairy cows at local fairs and longed to spend time on a dairy farm to learn firsthand about dairy animals and how they are cared for. Over the years I have built connections with dairy farmers to do just that – learn as much as I could about dairy farming.   Working on a dairy farm and owning a dairy calf of my own, I am now immersed in the dairy culture that I grew up loving.

Whether I am wearing my barn boots or my tiara and banner, I love sharing about dairy farming with every group of students, adults and seniors I meet. While I encounter many different and thought-provoking questions, these are five of my favorite questions to answer as a Dairy Ambassador:

1. “Do dairy farmers love their cows?”

Absolutely! Working on a farm has taught me that comfortable, happy cows are the most important part of a dairy farm. While every dairy farmer is different, they all have one thing in common: healthy, happy cows.

Every day, dairy farmers are up before the sun, feeding their cows and making sure they are comfortable. In every kind of weather and at any hour of the day or night, dairy farmers are ready to pull on a pair of boots and head out to the barn to monitor a young calf, help a calving cow, or just to check up on their herd, all because they love their cows.

How do dairy farmers show their love for their animals? They pamper their cows with fans and water misters in hot weather, pedicures to keep their hooves neatly trimmed, clean and comfortable places to rest, and consistent schedules for feeding and milking. Some farmers even provide mechanical brushes to scratch their cows’ every itch!

2. “What do dairy cows eat?”

Just like you and I, cows eat a variety of foods to stay healthy. Grasses, grains, beans and more contain different nutrients that cows need, meaning a cow can receive the best nutrition when she’s eating a mixture of these foods.

Professional Dairy Cattle Nutritionists (yes, there are nutritionists just for cows!) evaluate these ingredients and create feed recipes based on the needs of each group of cattle. These recipes, called Total Mixed Rations (TMR), are carefully measured and mixed to ensure the cows eat balanced healthy meals and don’t eat only their favorite ingredient.

Fun Fact: Dairy cows are masters of upcycling! They can convert leftover feed sources from other industries, such as cottonseeds, into nutrient-packed milk.

3. “How are cows milked?”

Cows on Washington dairy farms are milked using machines that gently mimic the way a cow would be milked by hand. On the farm where I work, the cows are milked two times each day in a milking parlor. Each cow’s udder is cleaned and dried when she enters the parlor; then the milking machine is placed on the cow’s udder for about five minutes. Milk flows directly to a cold tank on the farm for a milk tanker truck to pick up.

Fun Fact:  Most milk arrives at the store within 48 hours of being milked from the cow. Freshness is the name of the game when it comes to Washington milk!

4. “Why do cows wear ear tags?”

Ear tags help dairy farmers provide their cows with the most individualized care possible. Each cow’s ear tag is printed with her personal identification number. Farmers keep detailed records of their cows’ daily milk production, health history and parentage, which they organize using ear tag numbers. Some farmers even record how much time their cows spend eating, sleeping and chewing their cud using ear tags equipped with radio frequency sensors.

Now that they have all that information, what do farmers do with it? They use dairy software programs to monitor each cow’s comfort level and help predict any changes in her health before they are outwardly recognizable. Who knew an ear tag could benefit a cow so much!

Fun Fact: Many dairy cows wear pedometers, or cow Fitbits, to record their daily activity level. This enables a dairy farmer to be alerted if a cow takes more steps or less steps than usual, which might indicate a change in her well-being.

5. “Do dairy farmers take care of the environment?”

Dairy farmers are committed to caring for their land and protecting our resources. For many farmers, the land they farm on has been in their family for generations and they may pass it on to their own children someday. They know that protecting air and water quality is important for their own families and especially their communities. This drives them to find creative new ways to care for their environment. In fact, several Washington dairy farmers have won national awards for their sustainability practices.

One way dairy farmers care for the environment is by using technology to recycle manure. Digesters, heavy duty pieces of equipment, use manure to generate electricity which can power the dairy farm and houses in the surrounding community. Several Washington dairy farms have digesters and provide power to local electrical companies.

Another Washington farm uses worms to clean and filter waste water for reuse. From recycling to reducing water usage, farmers care for the environment every day. On a dairy farm, nothing goes to waste!

I love answering these five questions because they highlight what dairy farmers are like: they care about their cows, their land and their communities. Now that you know the answers to these common questions, you can spread the word about the amazing passion and science that goes into dairy farming in Washington. Then you can be an ambassador for dairy too!

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